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Dakota James' family disputes death was accidental, hires Cyril Wecht

The family of Dakota James, a North Side man whose body was found in the Ohio River, is disputing findings that he drowned accidentally, and has hired forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht.

James, 23, was last seen Jan. 25 in downtown Pittsburgh. Surveillance video showed him walking in Katz Plaza that night. When he didn't show up for work at J.B. Hunt, company officials called authorities.

Search crews and hundreds of volunteers spent weeks searching for James. His body was found in March on the banks of the Ohio River in Robinson Township.

On Thursday, the Allegheny County medical examiner ruled his death was accidental.

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James family hired Wecht to conduct his own independent review of the evidence, which will include autopsy results, toxicology results, autopsy photos and reports and evidence collected by Pittsburgh police.

Wecht said James' parents, Jeff and Pamela James, contacted him in early March when their son's body was recovered from the Ohio River. He said the James family didn't believe then and they don't believe now that Dakota's death was anything but suspicious.

"It is my understanding the family is not accepting this and they are very unhappy," Wecht said.

From the night he went missing through 40 days of searching, James' family and friends have suspected foul play. His family believes that whatever happened to him was caught on surveillance in Katz Plaza heading toward the Roberto Clemente Bridge.

Wecht said when it comes to a drowning -- in the absence of a witness, trauma to the victim's body or some sign of a struggle -- it can be almost impossible to tell the difference between accident, suicide or homicide.

But, Wecht said if the evidence is there, he intends to find it.

"I do believe there has to be some evidence of some kind of visual, physical, investigative, something to indicate how this young man got into the water," he said.

James, who was originally from Maryland, had lived in Pittsburgh since August 2015, when he moved to the area to earn his masters of business administration at Duquesne University.

James' parents were very active in the effort to find him, traveling from Maryland to Pittsburgh to participate in and organize searches.

After his death, James’ mother, Pamela, posted an emotional tribute to her son on Facebook.

She said her son “is now in the arms of God and those family members who have passed before us," and the morning rain “was the many tears that were being shed over the loss of my sweet baby."

"As his mother, I will never be able to express in words well enough how much I loved him. From his sweet little baby hands to the wonderful man he was becoming. People who did not have the opportunity to meet him, truly missed out,” Pamela James wrote.

Stay with Channel 11 News and WPXI.com for continuing coverage. 

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